“What are you talking about?” the doctor demanded. He gave Chanler a violent shake. “What is her fault?”
“Ask him,” said Chanler, with a jerk of his head toward von Helrung.
“All right now, boys. Let’s play nice,” rumbled Byrnes. “I don’t want to shoot either of you—much. Dr. Warthrop, if you please . . .”
Warthrop released his captive with a frustrated groan. He whipped away, took a few steps, then turned back. He punched his finger in the direction of Chanler’s nose.
“I am not frightened, but you have every reason to be! If there is any credence to our notions of heaven and hell, it will not be me who spends all eternity wallowing in shit! May God damn you for loving the precious name of Chanler more than the life of your own son! Explain that upon the Day of Judgment—which may come sooner than you expect.”
“Are you threatening me, sir?”
“I am no threat to you. What visited this house is the threat, and it remembers, Chanler. If I understand what drives him at all, you are next.”
We returned to the von Helrung brownstone, where the doctor washed the filth from his face and hair and disposed of his ruined riding cloak. Von Helrung was clearly shaken to his marrow, burdened with guilt—if only we had made our expedition earlier when Muriel had failed to call—and with grief—Bartholomew had been with him for years.
Warthrop was nearing the end of his considerable endurance. Several times he literally stormed the door, vowing to search every avenue and street, backyard and alleyway, until he found her. Each time he made as if to flee, von Helrung pulled him back.
“The police are her best hope now, Pellinore. They will spare no man to find her; you know this, mein Freund.”
The doctor nodded. Despite—even because of—Archibald Chanler’s influence, no man would remain idle while John was loose. And Chief Inspector Byrnes had a reputation for ruthlessness. It was Byrnes, after all, who had invented that special form of interrogation called “the third degree,” which some critics rightfully characterized as torture.
“What was Chanler talking about?” the doctor asked von Helrung. “That nonsense about this being her fault?”
Von Helrung smiled weakly. “He was never very fond of Muriel, you know,” he offered. “He wishes to blame anyone else but John.”
“It brought to mind something Muriel said,” the doctor continued, his bloodshot eyes narrowing at his old mentor. “She told me it was my fault. That I sent him into the wilderness. It is exceedingly odd to me, Meister Abram, how everyone involved in this matter blames someone other than the person who actually did send him there.”
“I did not tell John to go.”
“It was entirely his idea? He volunteered to risk his life in search of something that he had no faith existed?”
“I showed him my paper, but I never suggested . . .”
“Good God, von Helrung, can we quit these silly semantic games and speak frankly to each other? Is our friendship unworthy of the truth? Why would Muriel blame me and why would Archibald blame Muriel? What do either of us have to do with John’s madness?”
Von Helrung folded his arms over his thick chest and bowed his head. He swayed on his feet. For a moment I feared he might keel over.
“All seeds must take root in something,” he murmured.
“What the devil does that mean?”
“Pellinore, my old friend . . . you know I love you as my own son. I should not speak of these things.”
“It serves no purpose but to cause pain.”
“That’s better than no purpose at all.”
Von Helrung nodded. Tears glistened in his eyes. “He knew, Pellinore. John knew.”
Warthrop waited for him to go on, every muscle tense, every sinew taut, steeling himself for the blow.
“I do not know all the particulars,” his old master went on. “On the day he left for Rat Portage, I asked him the same question you now ask me: ‘Why? Why, John, if you do not believe?’”
Tears now coursed down the old monstrumologist’s cheeks—tears for John, for the doctor, for the woman between them. He held out his hands beseechingly. Warthrop did not accept them; his own hands remained clenched at his sides.
“It is a terrible thing, mein Freund, to love one who loves another. Unbearable, to know you are not the beloved, to know the heart of your beloved can never be free from the prison of her love. This is what John knew.”
In a rare moment of disingenuousness, Pellinore Warthrop feigned ignorance. “I am surrounded by madmen,” he said in a tone of wonder. “The whole world has gone mad, and I am the last sane man alive.”
“Muriel came to me before he left. She said, ‘Do not allow him to go. It is spite that drives him. He would humiliate Pellinore, make him the fool.’ And then she confessed that she had burdened him with the truth.”
“The truth,” echoed Warthrop. “What truth?”
“That she loves you still. That she loves you always. That she married him to punish you for what happened in Vienna.”
“Vienna was not my fault!” Warthrop cried, his voice shaking with fury. Von Helrung flinched and drew back, as if he feared the doctor would strike him. “You were there; you know this to be the truth. She demanded that I choose—marriage or my work—when she knew, she knew, my work was everything to me! And then, in the ultimate act of treachery, she ran to the arms of my best friend, demanding that he sacrifice nothing.”
“It was not treachery, Pellinore. Do not say that of her. She chose the one who loved her more than he loved himself. How can you judge her for this? She had been scorned by the one she loved, for a rival against whom she could never prevail. You are not a stupid man. You know Outiko is not the only thing that consumes us, Pellinore. It is not the only spirit that devours all mankind. Her broken heart drove her to John, and John’s drove him into the wilderness. I think now he went never meaning to come back. I think he sought out the Yellow Eye. I think he called to it before it called to him!”
He fell into his chair, giving way to his sorrow. Warthrop made no move to console him.
Though von Helrung begged him not to leave, the doctor insisted on returning to our hotel. His logic was brutally efficient. “If he is in fact exacting some kind of twisted reparation for the past, he will look for me next. Better to be in the place he expects to find me.”
“I will come with you,” von Helrung said.
“No, but if you’re concerned about your own safety—”
“Nein! I am an old man; I have lived to the fullness of my days. I am not afraid to die. But you cannot be both bait and hunter, Pellinore. And Will Henry! He should stay here.”
“I can think of no worse idea,” shot back my master.
He would brook no more arguments or entreaties. Timmy brought the calash around, and in short order we were disembarking at the Plaza.
Warthrop stopped abruptly outside the lobby doors, his head down and cocked slightly to one side, as if he were listening to something. Then, without a word, he took off, leaping over a hedge and tearing down the lawn toward the Fifty-ninth Street entrance to the park, running as fast as his long legs could carry him, which was very fast indeed. I raced after him, convinced he had spotted his quarry lurking along the low stone wall. I fell farther and farther behind. He was simply too fast for me. By the time I entered the park, he was a hundred yards ahead. I could see his lanky silhouette darting between the arc lights.
Warthrop’s prey veered off the path and into the woods. The doctor followed, and I lost sight of both for a moment. The racket of their scuffle led me to where they rolled on the ground locked in each other’s arms, first the doctor on top, then his opponent. I stopped a few feet from the tussle and drew the silver knife von Helrung had given me. I did not know if I would be able to actually use it, but it gave me comfort to hold it.
I would not need it for anything other than comfort, for I quickly discerned the man was not John Chanler but the same raggedy figure who had been stalking us since our arrival in New York. He fought bravely enough, but he was no match for the monstrumologist, who had by this point managed to straddle him, one hand clutching his scrawny neck, the other pushing down on his narrow chest.
“Don’t hurt me!” the man squealed in a high-pitched English accent. “Please, Dr. Warthrop!”
“I’m not going to hurt you, you fool,” gasped the doctor.
He released the man’s neck and sat back upon his chest with his legs thrown on either side of his torso. The doctor’s catch turned his light gray eyes beseechingly in my direction.
“I can’t breathe,” he wheezed.
“Good! I should squeeze the life out of you, Blackwood,” said the doctor. “What in the devil do you think you’re doing?”
“Trying to breathe.”
The doctor heaved an exaggerated sigh and pushed himself to his feet. The man clutched his stomach, sat up, cheeks ablaze, sweat shining on his high forehead. His nose was extraordinarily large; it dominated his pinched face.
“You’ve been following me,” the doctor accused him.
Blackwood was staring at me—or rather at the deadly object in my hand.
“Could you ask the young man to put away the knife?”
“He will,” said the doctor. “After he runs you through with it.”
The monstrumologist held out his hand to Blackwood, who accepted it, and Warthrop hoisted him to his feet. Then the thin man’s face split open into a wide unabashed grin, as if they had dispensed with some kind of bizarre preliminaries. He thrust his hand toward the doctor’s chest.
“How have you been, Dr. Warthrop?”
Warthrop ignored the gesture. “Will Henry, may I introduce Mr. Algernon Henry Blackwood, a reporter who masquerades as a spy when he isn’t a spy masquerading as a reporter.”
“Not much of either, really.”
“Is that so? Then, why have you been lurking outside my hotel since I got here?”
Blackwood grinned sheepishly and lowered his eyes. “I was hoping for the same thing I always hope for, Dr. Warthrop.”
The doctor was nodding slowly. “That’s what I suspected—and what I hoped. Blackwood, you look terrible. When was the last time you had something decent to eat?”
The monstrumologist had an idea.
And so it was that I found myself, a half hour later, sitting on a sofa of rich velvet in the lavishly adorned sitting room of a private “gentlemen’s club,” as such organizations were called in that day, situated within sight of the more famous Knickerbocker Club.
Like the Knickerbocker, the club to which Warthrop belonged prided itself on its exclusiveness. The membership was limited (exactly one hundred, not one more, not one less), and the identities of its members were a closely guarded secret. No man in my memory ever publicly acknowledged his membership in the Zeno Club, and its existence, as far as I know, was never exposed or advertised.
Normally guests were not allowed within the rarified atmosphere of the club, but certain members, Warthrop among them, were a bit more equal than others. His knock was answered by the doorman, who glared down his nose at us through the small trapdoor situated beneath the brass plaque with the initials ZC. He took in Blackwood’s ill-fitting suit, and it was clear he was not pleased, but without a word he turned and escorted us into the deserted sitting room, where Blackwood seemed to shrink before my eyes, intimated, perhaps, by the Victorian excess of the décor. Our orders were taken by another member of the staff with the same moribund attitude as the doorman—a gin and bitters for Blackwood, and a pot of Darjeeling tea for the doctor.